This article is an edited transcript of The Films of Ivan Sen symposium, convened and chaired by Susan Thwaites at University of Canberra on 10 July 2015.1
Ivan Sen is an important figure in what has been called the Blak Wave in Australian cinema — the rise over the last few decades of a growing number of talented Indigenous filmmakers who are redefining long-held conceptions about Australian cinema. Since his first feature, Beneath Clouds (2002), Sen’s films have won numerous awards, nationally and internationally, and received widespread critical acclaim. The symposium was a rare opportunity for an in-depth discussion with Sen about his film-making process and aspirations. At the time of the symposium, Goldstone (2016) was in post-production and Sen was working on the screenplay for his planned feature, Loveland.
To open the symposium, Susan Thwaites begins by picking up threads from an earlier conversation she had with Sen.
Susan Thwaites: Ivan has spoken about how, after Beneath Clouds (2002), he became the producer of his films and how important that is. The hierarchy in the film industry is that the producer owns the intellectual property, owns the film, and if you’re the screenwriter you hand your screenplay, your ideas over. Ivan, what changed and why did you decide to do the producing?
Ivan Sen: Well, after Beneath Clouds, I’d written it, developed it for a few years, directed it and then it was like, after I’d finished it, it wasn’t my film anymore. Say if I just wanted to take it to Moree or somewhere to screen it, technically I needed the producer’s okay. So after that I got together with my producing partner and set up our own company, and my approach to work is totally different now because, from the seed of the idea to the very end, this is going to be in our hands. We can look after this thing. It has happened with a lot of Indigenous filmmakers, they’ve just been used as hired hands, and the work has ended up being owned by a non-Indigenous company and people.
Susan: So you’re the cinematographer, the screenwriter, the director, the composer and the producer. That idea that you would take on those roles is pretty extraordinary because they’re all so different. Especially the producer hat, because you are thinking about whether this film will make money, who is going to see this film, am I going to get the budget back. Then you’ve got the artist side, which is, I want to make this story. I’m interested in how you double those hats, your creative process.
Ivan: Well it’s a pretty instinctual thing. it’s just the way I started. I got training in all those areas before I did that. I started in stills photography and then I worked in a production house where I learned to do sound recording, editing, camera operating. I’m just doing what I’ve always been doing. It is just the scale that has changed. I always look at why do we have to separate film from other art forms? Why do we need all these people and divisions? With Goldstone (2016), I had a pretty big crew of about forty people, so it’s much easier because you get help to support you. And the collaborations that I have, I love them and respect them and because there is more space when you do have people in those other roles, those relationships become more intimate. Like my relationships with the actors, my relationships with other crew members, like the camera team, the lighting people — all of those relationships become very strong because they’re much more intimate, there are no people in between, getting in the way. On Goldstone, we were in a desert for two months, on a station, and we set up our own camp, we were there the whole time. It was just the most amazing intimate crew. No-one wanted to go home.
Susan: What was the inspiration for Goldstone (2016)?
Ivan: I felt like I hadn’t quite fulfilled what I wanted to do in Mystery Road (2013), on a few different levels, and I just felt that to have another crack at that would be really extraordinary for me and for Aaron as well.2 And as a chance to introduce a whole host of other elements to my films which I hadn’t had before, by having an ABC plot where you cut away from our leading characters and cut to other characters who are white, and have a whole Chinese element.3 The Chinese have been out there for the last two hundred years. I guess it’s a modern-day reflection of what has been going on since the first Chinese turned up out there and interacted with the white miners and the Indigenous people.
Susan: [to audience] I am struck by how little dialogue there is in a lot of Ivan’s films. I was talking to Ivan about that and whether the screenplays had that sparseness. He said that no, actually he does write dialogue for a lot of characters, because the nature of the industry is that the screenplay has to be understood by funding bodies and also the actors, but Ivan was saying that when they’re on set, he’ll say, don’t say this line, just think it. That just blew me away, because as you are pointing out, you’re watching this person, you’re almost watching them think. Ivan, how does that work for you?
Ivan: It’s just another example of it all being the one thing for me, writing, directing, writing it knowing that I’m going to strip these lines away when I’m rehearsing. In Beneath Clouds, I had those two young kids in a room like this for two weeks and in that two weeks, I [worked out] which lines would be verbal and which lines would be non-verbal, and so I was very clear about that with them. It was their first time, so they would know exactly what they were saying here and then this and when to do it. After about two weeks they knew that script better than the big actors I’ve been working with more recently.
Susan: So you do that with all your scripts?
Ivan: Yeah and then it will go through another level where I challenge the actor to see if we can do it without [the line] and that’s another level, type of my kind of cleansing. It’s okay because actors don’t like saying lines because they don’t want to remember them. So the less lines for them the better. I give them the opportunity to lose lines. In saying that, if they like a line, they’ll never get rid of it. They kind of love it.
Susan: [to audience] Earlier, I asked Ivan, how do you write your screenplays, is it a conventional way of doing things? He said no, I’m not even starting with words, I’m interested in light and in four years’ time what the technology will be for a light, so that I can use it on set so my film can look a certain way. I just thought that was delightful, just a different way of thinking about film making.
[to Ivan] You just don’t start with a traditional treatment. You might start by being inspired by an image and be inspired by a light that might not yet even exist?
Ivan: And I don’t want to keep doing the same things and I don’t think I have really at this point. I mean Goldstone actually is another step to a wider audience than Mystery Road. There’s a lot more action. We’ve gone to the most incredible landscape I’ve ever shot. We were in Queensland again but it was absolutely the most ancient, stunning [landscape].4 People talk about John Wayne riding out — it was very much like that sort of photo of Monument Valley. The funny thing is you get all the grey nomads coming through there and they just stop and say they’re waiting for the cowboys and Indians and John Wayne to come out. Why say that looks like America? Why isn’t it [that] America looks like that? The area where we shot, there’s a lot of land like that out there. It’s probably almost as much as there is in America but it’s all locked up in stations and people can’t access it, but we’ve got that look as much as America has. We got incredibly beautiful images up there and I had the luxury of having a drone with me the whole time. It’s a whole new level because the drone is there the whole time and you can see the age of this continent and the people moving around on it and the shadows. This is no joke, Aaron Pedersen had a shadow at least 300m long and you could see it across the land.
I was just like, let’s turn this action into the most artistic drama action you’ve ever seen in any film and it was no different to the deep dialogue scenes, it just felt the same. There was something stunningly beautiful and profound in the action in the landscape we came across. It’s so beautiful, so restrained. That’s what I want to carry to a whole other level again — keep the art but make it for the masses. That’s the art for me now. It’s not easy to do that. It’s much easier to do an art film or a drama but if you try and do a genre film that gets on the screens everywhere but has the same kind of resonance as Mystery Road or Goldstone … I think it can be done. That’s what I’m pushing at now. It’s really taking time but I’m extremely passionate about it.
At this point, Thwaites opens the conversation to questions from the audience.
Audience member: What sort of cameras are you shooting with on Goldstone?
Ivan: That’s a Red Dragon, it’s had new software.
Audience member: Is that what you put in the drone?
Ivan: Unfortunately, the drones are still a dodgy set up at the moment, the technology is still catching up. There are companies making the actual vehicles and there are companies making cameras and they’re trying to come together. But we just used a cheaper one that hasn’t had any camera as part of the system, which I prefer. It’s much easier and quicker to get it up and running, but we got away with it because the imagery out there is just so strong, just shooting HD with a slight compression it doesn’t matter. You just see those shots and it’s just bang, extraordinary.
Audience member: They were 4,000 pixels?
Ivan: Yeah, 4K, but in saying that, you’re not driving the action with them. You talk about cut-away imagery, but there’s something else. It does something else to your brain and it is going to a different level.
Audience member: In terms of your passion for reaching a big audience, how is that affecting how you think about your films? Is it becoming a challenge in terms of how you structure a story or how much action is in there, or the actors?
Ivan: It took me a little while to learn this but when you make a film you have to look at who’s going to see it and what sort of film it is, because the day will come when you will finish it. You’ve got to start at the beginning. Mystery Road and now Goldstone have been stepping stones to what [my next film] Loveland would be. Loveland is like a big step up in many ways.5 That’s why it’s taken seven years to write. You do have a bit of action. It’s funny because there’s action and then there’s action and then there’s action. It’s like music, tuning everything so it’s all within the one key and you aren’t pressing notes that aren’t within that key. So when I say action it’s got to be the right action, it’s not like someone jumping off the top of a building with one of those flying suits. It’s action which is relevant to the characters and it’s not punching out of the fabric of the story and it feels real. And it’s got to be profound, it’s got to be beautiful, it’s got to work on many levels, not just raising the tension of the popcorn eaters, and those people will feel that if you do it right. And I think that’s what will make it successful financially as well.
Audience member: Are you finding you’re having to compromise on things like the pace of your films?
Ivan: I’ve definitely picked the pace up. Goldstone’s pace is dramatically quicker than Mystery Road. And that’s all come from concept with a different plot line, different characters, a lot of stuff going on with the Chinese element and stepping towards the bigger audience. It’s picking up the pace but still not rushing the dramatic moment, which I think Hollywood always does because that moment is not really there to pause on anyway. But it’s taking that with me when I try to get this bigger audience, not letting go of that. And for me Loveland is also an Indigenous film. The two lead characters are a white guy with an American accent and a girl who could be a future Chinese star, but for me it’s still kind of an Indigenous film because of the sense of place, the sacredness of things. So it’s taking all that and putting it in there too. Creating that mega Chinese city in the South China Sea just excites the hell out of me but it’s got to have a sense of place. There’s always someone there when we get there and that land has a connection to those people in some way. And that sense of respect and sensitivity towards where you are and how that connects and who you are. That’s an Indigenous concept that I’ve grown up with. That will always be in my work.
Audience member: That was a really beautiful idea about tuning the action to the same key as the characters. And you said Aaron Pedersen’s performance is quite different in Goldstone. Could you talk about the differences?
Ivan: Firstly, I consciously wrote the character to talk very little. He is in a totally different place. His character is almost unrecognisable. So that provided a platform for him to play very differently to what he did in Mystery Road. It’s something he’s very passionate about too. His voice is a lot lower in Goldstone. We looked at a lot of people we know and people [who had] come out of gaol and they’re all right for a while and then back on the yarndi and going nuts from it and just going to pieces.6 I guess that’s the kind of model for him in this one. It’s Aaron, walking around, this black mess, which puts the cogs into motion to change all this corruption that’s going on between the Mayor, the mining company and the Land Council. Which is interesting having a bad guy being a blackfella, for the first time. The whole corruption coming through from the establishment, crossing the cultural borders.
I wrote stuff for Mystery Road and he wrote stuff. Mystery Road was the first film he’d made in that way, where his performance was so eloquently captured and so he realised he probably didn’t have to do so much to get across to the audience because I’m sucking it up with my camera anyway. So we both wrote stuff and I feel that Aaron has really gone up a whole level in his control as an actor.
[For Goldstone] I’m saying you’ve got to be ripped, you’re coming out of gaol. And he goes ‘I’ll come out, I’ll be bald, I’ll have no hair’. I say, ‘That’s great man.’ When he starts talking about how he could be as a character that starts to pull me and add stuff to the script. A lot of stuff he says doesn’t work at all, but he says I’m just throwing stuff out there bro, it’s cool. It’s a very Indigenous way we work. After doing these two films we are on such an instinctual level together which is hard to actually articulate.
Audience member: The great, remarkable actors who are in your films, do you pursue them or do they pursue you, or both?
Ivan: It’s a little bit of both but it’s probably more me chasing them. I find that people are drawn through the work, drawn to me or drawn to the other actors in the film, or they’re not. And if it’s too much of a struggle then I don’t pursue it. They don’t do it for money. Ryan Kwanten flew out from the True Blood set straight to us for three days and then straight back to the True Blood set and he was paid nothing, like $500. We just paid for his air ticket. That’s the kind of people they are, they just want to be there. The right people just end up turning up. And no one leaves our sets without feeling totally loved and cared for and they’re profound experiences.
Audience member: I’d like you to talk about the music in your films. It seems to have changed a bit over your three main films. In Mystery Road sometimes there is no music, sometimes just ambient sound. [Can you talk about the music for Goldstone?]
Ivan: Music for me is a healing thing, I need to do it. For Goldstone, I invested in a lot more software and gear and I’m finding sounds I’ve never heard before. With the acceleration of computers and software, it’s a real spike now in technology and music and I think sounds are now creating emotions which I’ve never felt before. They’re very, very complex and the layering of sound … with the software I just got recently you get 20,000 sounds and the combination of the ways you can change that music is just mind blowing. And changing in gorgeous restrained ways, and when you layer them together and you have note changes happening on top of each other and different sounds … it’s like you can create music which people have never heard before and I can’t turn my back to that now. With Goldstone [I wanted] to create a lot of depth in the music.
Audience member: One of the things I particularly like in your films is the way in which the characters kind of inform the landscape and at the same time the landscape kind of informs the characters. I read in an article that when you were in college in Brisbane you studied location portraiture. It strikes me that that is something you do extremely well, it blurs the boundaries between person and place.
Ivan: It actually was environmental portraiture. If you see a black and white photo of a guy selling stuff in a market in Haiti or somewhere, that’s environmental portraiture. It’s telling a whole story of his life, or part of his life, in one frame. I had plans of going from photography to Director of Photography, but it just didn’t gel with me because I’m telling stories with the stills camera and then picking up a camera to shoot someone else’s stories. It doesn’t make sense. So that’s why I pushed myself to go beyond the DoP and actually go, no I’m going to try the whole lot. As a stills photographer, especially with environmental portraiture, you’re a story teller and you’re doing it with one shot. I used to go to Toomelah and do those shots around there, just take a photo of someone sitting where they sit in their general day-to-day life.7 And when they sit there you can see what’s next to them and how that functions in their day-to-day life and how this thing is important there. There are connections to who they are all around them and that’s what I’ve carried over to film. Not just trying to make frame after frame, a history of who this person is. It tells us a little bit about who they are. That’s coming from looking at a lot of photo journalism. There’s an international photo journalism press book that comes out yearly with the most incredible photographs from photographers from all over the world, usually in hot spots, and that was a big influence on me. Probably more than filmmakers.
Audience member: Besides wanting to replace John Wayne with Aaron Pedersen, I wonder about your ambitions to replace the public imagery of the landscape of Western New South Wales. You’re actually putting back Indigenous history into the public imagery. These are the stories that we haven’t heard, and presences that have not been in the public imagination. How much do you have to do research on backgrounds. I think about Mystery Road, I mean, do these stories come out of police stories of drug dealings, do you do much research?
Ivan: It’s a bit of a mix. I did do a bit of research. There was a group of detectives who got in trouble for selling steroids illegally in Tamworth and Moree and there were some drug connections, so there is back stuff happening there in that area but it’s a combination.8 Depending on the project you lean towards more research or more from your own life experience. I mean for Loveland I find a lot of that has come out of spending six years in China so that’s my experience of that. On film you can show people how you see and feel and I get a chance to do that as well.
Audience member: What was your inspiration for the gunfight at the end of Mystery Road? It’s a very unique action, I haven’t seen anything like that slow-motion sort of gunfight and that sort of sniper versus sniper.
Ivan: We are in the genre area, so it was always going to be there but I just wanted to make it beautiful, artistic, restrained and real all at the same time. I used to hunt when I was a teenager, so I grew up with a gun culture around me and I always remember those shots, over a long distance, they actually take time to get where they’re going. The more artistic you can make it, the more profound it becomes. And then it becomes drama, it becomes more than action.
Audience member: On the topic of photography, who inspired you in photography? Who are your favourites?
Ivan: It was more photographs than people. It is more guys that go out for five years and get a shot that’s a cracker. Initially the biggest influence would have been Ansel Adams — just that control over the medium.9 You look at one of his prints and I mean composition is one thing but his tonal reproduction …
Audience member: In terms of your producer role, are you hiring people who are developing filmmakers? Do you find yourself in the role of hiring?
Ivan: It’s my producer David Jowsey who is taking on that role. He gets bombarded by Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to look at projects and he does get scripts from Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to forward to me, which I actually don’t look at anymore. I’m just so busy over the next few years. We’re just trying to really get financially viable ourselves and get where we want to be. Maybe when we do get there we will have more time and open up a bit more to try and see more people come through.
The following session of the symposium focused on Goldstone, which was in post-production at the time of the symposium. The discussion opened with a question about location.
Ivan: That area, Aaron Pedersen and I had driven through it when we were looking for locations and it’s about a few hours west of Winton.10 There’s no power, no phone, no internet, nothing out there. So we had to bring everything in and food would come through every second day on a truck. Just a really expensive exercise to do, but it’s just too far to drive from Winton every day. I think it’s partly why no-one has shot a film there before, it’s the first time this area has been filmed. It’s much more dramatic and it’s a lot stronger [than other areas we saw]. It was basically, that was the only place. It was either there or nowhere. You can see in the shots, there’s just thousands of flies and lots of dust. It’s pretty harsh conditions. But just stunning, very special place. I would go running in the moonlight with no lights and sit on some of these mountains at night. It’s just incredible.
[The land itself] — there’s a Winton Council Common takes up some of it and the rest of it, we actually shot on the station where we lived. So sometimes we’d just walk to where we were filming from our tents, because it was like having a back lot. That changed the characters, the actors in terms of the characters, because there was no leaving that space to go to a motel. Everybody just became very close. Actors are actors, they just turn off, action, cut, and they’re just who they are. So they’re just like everyone else getting close to each other. It was an amazing experience.
Audience member: [Do you plan to shoot another film up there?]
Ivan: I’m not shooting another film in the country. I want some city stuff. I want some lights and I want some city.
In the final session with Sen, one participant described being troubled and confronted by Toomelah (2011), particularly by the laughter in the film at what this speaker experienced as ‘tragic’, and asked for an explanation of the laughter. What follows is a condensed version of the discussion, as much of the recording was inaudible.
Sen: You can’t forget it’s just your perspective. I mean, if I had those boys sitting next to you now, you’d probably be a bit freaked out because they’re a little bit wild and a little bit kind of scary and obviously they are going to have a different sense of humour to yours. So if they watch some Ice Cube movie from LA they’re going to be laughing all the way through it and you will be going what the hell is this?11 How can I answer that question about why are they laughing? Someone does a shit in a toilet they will laugh at it. You won’t. A familiar thing I’ve got from Indigenous audiences, not just from the Toomelah audience, is that Indigenous people laugh because they’re hearing things and seeing things they had never seen portrayed before or represented and they’re seeing it or hearing it for the first time. It’s like we’ve seen that our whole lives and all of a sudden it’s there and it’s in our face and there’s a humorous reaction that comes out of that, because it’s this familiar being presented back at you. There’s so many different layers, you can’t even try to list them all. And them seeing themselves, they’re going to laugh anyway. It’s really multi-layered and Toomelah can be a pretty happy place. There’s a real sense of belonging there for the people. When I’m there, there’s a feeling of connection that I don’t get anywhere in the world. And it’s not just the land, because white people put us there, in that specific area. It’s the people, the bloodline, that’s the thing we have to look after and cherish and protect for the future.
There’s a language being taught but it’s the white syllabus that’s being taught by white teachers. It’s the same old, same old and it’s not working and it’s never worked. So there needs to be a new system of life integrated and especially in isolated places like that. There’s got to be a bringing back of culture and authority within that culture to blend with this modern-day kind of society. I’ve got no doubt about that. There is a lot more culture floating around than what’s present in the film. I intentionally didn’t put too much into it because a lot of these guys aren’t interested in it and [the film is] their world. The Toomelah world is not the same world as what is portrayed in the film because that’s those young guys’ world.
We’ve had the Christians out there for a long time now and they’re still there. The only negativity I’ve had to this film from Toomelah are the Christians. but that’s a very small minority and you can see where it’s coming from. The Christianity thing has been out there for such a long time and these young guys aren’t buying it anymore. So that was injected as a system of life and it’s slowly eroded. My mum’s generation were probably the last ones to buy it. The clean-cut days of the 60s, early 70s are all gone and the Christianity is totally gone and that has totally taken the base away and so the system of life is becoming the drugs and survival because there is nothing else there. There is no system of living.
To me it’s not tragic because I’ve had it my whole life and that’s not the attitude I’ve got. It’s not my attitude, it’s not my way. When me and Aaron Pedersen get together, we get angry at stuff. A lot of blackfellas do and we get very passionate when we’re together, but I guess that tragedy is our form of anger. I mean it’s just always been there. I mean dealing with the situation you are seeing in Toomelah is our life, in varying degrees. If we saw it just as tragic … of course it’s tragic, it’s like killing us. We’re burying people every week. They’re dying at forty-five years old every week.
But you go to Toomelah, you’ve never seen the energy, the kids, it’s addictive. They’re just so hopeful …
Thank you to Susan Thwaites for offering me the opportunity to edit the symposium proceedings for publication and to Katie Hayne for assistance in providing the recordings. I am grateful to the Writing and Society Research Centre in the School of Humanities and Communication Arts at Western Sydney University, which provided funding to transcribe the proceedings.
Thanks particularly to Ivan Sen for permission to publish this version of the symposium proceedings.
2. Aaron Pedersen is the lead actor in Mystery Road and one of the two leads in Goldstone. Pedersen is well known for his numerous roles in Australian television dramas, particularly in his roles as a detective (Water Rats, 1996; City Homicide, 2007) and a lawyer (The Circuit, 2007—10). Mystery Road was his first lead role for cinema. For an in-depth discussion of Pedersen’s performance in Mystery Road, see Rutherford (2015) ‘Walking the edge’.
3. An ABC plot is a narrative structure that alternates between three plot lines.
4. Much of Mystery Road was also shot in the area around Winton in Queensland.
5. Sen’s planned film, Loveland, is a science fiction/action film, set in the South China Sea.
6. Yarndi is an Indigenous Australian term for marijuana.
7. Toomelah is an Aboriginal community in regional New South Wales, on the site of an old mission, where Sen has family connections.
8. Much of the town footage for Mystery Road was shot in Moree, a town in north-western New South Wales, and Sen used local Moree girls to act several of the roles. Moree is the nearest town to Toomelah. Tamworth is a regional town in northern New South Wales.
9. Ansel Adams was an acclaimed American landscape photographer.
10. Winton is a remote town and locality in central western Queensland.
11. Ice Cube is an American rapper, actor and writer.
Beneath Clouds 2002, dir. Ivan Sen. Production: Australian Film Finance Corporation (AFFC), Autumn Films, Axiom Films
Goldstone 2016, dir. Ivan Sen. Production: Bunya Productions, Dark Matter
Mystery Road 2013, dir. Ivan Sen. Production: Bunya Productions, Mystery Road Films, Screen Australia
Toomelah 2011, dir. Ivan Sen. Production: Bunya Productions
Rutherford, Anne 2015 ‘Walking the edge: Performance, the cinematic body and the cultural mediator in Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road’, Studies in Australasian cinema 9.1: 1750-3183